Walter Mosley and the Last Days of Ptolemy Grey 2/23/11
From the outset, I will be clear about this: I love Walter Mosley! I have read most of his books and I always look forward to anything new he puts out. Mosley is unique: for feeling, character and dialogue, there is no more fun read out there. But it is not just fun. Mosley is serious.
Heading back to Anchorage from Portland, I finished Mosley’s newest book, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. I have never read anything quite like it. Mosley gets into the jumbled mind of his protagonist, a 91 year old Black man named Ptolemy Usher Grey. While Grey is suffering from dementia, he has not lost it altogether. He brings to bear a long experience of life and love lessons and a passion for doing what is right.
It is hard to say what is most impressive about Ptolemy Grey. The unabashed feeling Mosley unleashes which can make you cry or the fierce determination for justice which still burns hot in the heart of a 91 year old man. I loved that Mosley made a 91 year old demented Black man his hero.
Central to the plot is the relationship of Grey to a young woman, Robyn, who helps him when he is seriously down and out. Living alone in a filthy L.A. ghetto apartment, preyed on by predator neighbors anxious to steal his money, Grey, with help from Robyn, reemerges into the light. Her help sets into motion surprising developments and it gives Grey a chance to demonstrate his finer qualities.
There are a number of compelling subplots. Grey has a mentor, Coydog McCann, who taught him valuable life lessons. Coy, long dead, lives in Grey’s imagination. His guidance and example were an inspiration to Grey.
“Life ain’t fair. Life ain’t right. Life ain’t no good or bad. What it is is you, boy. You makin’ up your mind and takin’ your own path. Don’t worry ’bout that cop with the truncheon. Don’t worry ’bout a cracker with his teefs missin’ and a torch in his hand. Ain’t none’a that any of your nevermind. All you got to do is make sure he ain’t got a chance.”
I think the Coy-Grey relationship reflects the importance Mosley places on mentoring. Young people need mentors and at key points throughout the novel Coy comes back into Grey’s mind with critical helpful advice from way back. We are not alone in this thing Mosley seems to say. The young people who are clueless in the novel neither have a mentor nor realize what is lacking in their life. Maybe it is being a guy but Mosley is very focused on fathers loving and guiding their sons. That is also true in the Leonid McGill series.
I also read the story as a meditation on love. The mutually giving relationship of Robyn and Grey was a love paradigm. Robyn cared for Grey when he was a mess. He lived in disgusting filth and he was demented almost to the point of incoherence. Robyn befriended him, cleaned his apartment from top to bottom, protected him from vicious assault by muggers, cooked for him, and sought out needed medical care for him. She was not in it for the money. She saved him and he recognized it and reciprocated. To quote them:
“Are you tired ‘a me bein’ here, Uncle?”
“No baby. You put a fire in my mind and love at my doorstep.”
There is typically a fair amount of sex in Mosley’s books. Not so much in this one but still there is an upfront love of sensuality and sexuality. Mosley’s characters are not angels. There is also considerable humor.
“Women deadly serious when it comes to kissin’, Coy used to say. They laugh all the way there, but when it come down to kissin’ they like a cat when she see sumpin’ shakin in the tall grass.”
The racial dimension of Mosley is on full display in Ptolemy Grey. He creates a microcosm ghetto world with a range of believable characters from young to old. Mosley sees the oppression but he generally avoids two dimensional portrayals. Hard not to think he is down with the people although he sugarcoats no one.
I did want to mention his discussion of aging. Mosley empathetically sees the old person shunted aside by society and essentially discarded and ignored. He recognizes the melancholy and bittersweetness of old age. Here is Coy
talking to a young Grey, then L’il Pea:
” The older you get the more you live in the past,” Coy intoned like a minister introducing his sermon. “Old man like me don’t have no first blue sky or thunderstorm or kiss. Old man like me don’t laugh at the taste of a strawberry or smell his own stink and smile. You right there in the beginnin’ when everything was new and true. My world is made outta ash and memories, broken bones and pain.”
Still, the story takes a positive spin and it is not all doom and gloom. Mosley does not see Grey as a victim. In the end, Grey acts to protect his chosen family and he deals out rough justice.
Hard to choose among Mosley books but I liked A Little Yellow Dog in the Easy Rawlins series. Both the recent Leonid McGill books, Known to Evil and The Long Fall are good too. I will also put in a mention for Fortunate Son which I enjoyed a lot. There is a directness and deceptive simplicity in Mosley that evokes Langston Hughes. Mosley opens up and humanizes a whole hidden world – not a bad accomplishment for any writer.